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Light through forest tree trunks ;

What we learn studying the forests

During the last thirty years, the general society has been invited to widen our world’s perspective on humans and their interactions with the environment and how it impacts, modifies, and shapes the environment. The idea of large portions of the forest as untouched, pristine areas of the world came to the ground. We know now that most landscapes and biomes we have today, defined as ‘constructed’ natural environments, are somehow connected to humans and their actions. We also learnt that forests are an evolving and living combination of trajectories of different beings that, with their relations, creates changing landscapes and the dynamics within them. They are not enemies of development but rather their best ally because it provides not limited possibilities of creating income and life quality but expands possibilities. Widening the opportunities, we do not need to limit our vision to the necessity of converting forest into something else to extract hidden valuable metals like in mining or convert it into cattle pasture or large portions of commodities plantations. Forests have taught us that diversity is a key and that abundance comes with the growth of different ways to interact with the environment and not limit or eliminate it. It teaches humility and respect and that greatness takes time and is a collective work that could extend over a lifetime. With its climatic balance, rainy patterns and seasonal characteristics, the world as we know it is the result of a long-term, somewhat fragile equation where the natural environment plays an important role.

As we were learning those lessons, we also saw the strengthening of insurgent concepts, theories and theoretical frameworks like political ecology, decolonial theories, ecological feminism and the Anthropocene. They all have in common the undeniable truth that the paradigms and concepts that put aside humans and the environmental dynamics lack two growing pieces of evidence. First, how human beings relate to the planet changed it, so we cannot immediately preview or control it. Second, there is more than one way to think and practice this relation. Concerning the latter, evidence brought by silenced voices of traditional populations worldwide teaches us how those populations have developed equitable, sustainable, diverse and respectful relations with the environment for centuries.

Once essential to help the survival of the 'modern', 'civilised' society, local knowledge has shaped most of the global Nature and built diversity. Yet, they were silenced and undermined as not valuable ones. Local forest peoples voices are often overlooked because most of their relationship with the forest is not based on the ideas of profit, surplus and conquest, but rather on community dialogue, understanding and balanced practices of giving and taking. In the Amazon forest, many of those voices can be heard. Those voices are like Angela Mendes, coordinator of the Chico Mendes Committee at the state of Acre in Brazil. Her father was Chico Mendes, one of the earlier leaders of the rubber tappers of the Brazilian Amazon. They fought for the right of these traditional communities to have their territories and traditional sustainable way of living and relationships with the environment. She is one of the many who continued his work of fighting for the recognition of traditional populations rights and voices to be heard; along with the members of the committee members, they help the world find new narratives and news livelihoods connected to the forest within it. Likewise, we hear that in the voice of Claudelice Santos, a human rights defender from Pará state in Brazil. Born and raised in Amazonia, she fights for the forest’s rights to remain, be treated with the respect it deserves, have forest’s lessons learned worldwide, and spread the word that humans can live in peace with the forest.

Hearing their voices, we understand that forests have given us a way out of the trouble we get in now, only if we could listen to what we have learned those last decades. Science is hearing it and dialoguing with it, as points out by Clarissa Gandour, a policy analyst focused on Amazon deforestation policies from Climate Policy Initiative (CPI). We now have science-based evidence of how we affect the forest, climate, planet, and ways out of it. That evidence has grown stronger every day and is explicitly highlighted in the last IPCC report. Released last August, it warns that we underestimate the more immediate consequences of climate change. We must convert our accumulated knowledge into multilevel policies that dialogue global and regional, national, and international. We urgently need to bring diversity to the economy and to the concept of wellbeing. It is crucial to change our idea of development and accept that the old model of global exploitation based on a few selected goods, projects, and productive chains is broken. We have the answers, and it is eminent that they are applied.

In November of 2021, during COP-26, the world will hopefully pay attention to the negotiations and debates on climate change issues. It is time to defend the truth that forests are crucial to help the planet balance and provide the resources we value, especially for continuing activities such as agriculture and extractivism.

We have decisive steps ahead which demand dialogues and the definitions of multilevel and agreed parameters that will orient action from global to the local level, defining what should have bottom-up approaches, what to tackle with top-down strategies, and a hybrid system. One of them is an ongoing challenge: Global regulations that establish common grounds of action based on a global agreement of the proportion of international area that must be preserved to maintain (or even improve) the actual climatic balance. The most urgent places to secure that the objective above is fulfilled and most importantly change the valuation of land that alters the paradigm that sees forested areas as cheap, lower-value places. Additionally, global environmental governance mechanisms must ensure that national and local law and actions dialogues with international conventions such as ILO 169 and Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) of indigenous peoples and local communities, respecting local dynamics and needs, including the different forest and biomes dynamics worldwide. Therefore, the real challenge is the production of those combined frames of action that would follow the minimum standards and include an essential aspect: respecting diversity, both natural and human-environment interactions.

For that, bringing economy and the possibility of changing patterns of valuation of products and attribution of value within a production chain is essential. As was once decided to abandon the gold standard, now is the time to leave the pattern of profit generation based solely on valuing final products within a chain, undermining the links of the chain or the impacts of the resources being used within the chain. It is unsustainable and irresponsible to have a discourse of leaving no one behind if the system where we are basing it goes almost everyone and everything not regarded as resourceful behind. There were emergencies in the past, and we, as humans, had decided to change for a chance of having a future. Now it is time for making this choice again in a scenario that more than ever shows how a diverse unit is the key for our present and near / far future.

About the author


Dr Thais Tartalha Lombardi is a Territorial Planning Associate Professor at Federal University of ABC (UFABC). She has been dialoguing with rural and urban populations nearby the Transamazon Highway and on the surrounding municipality of Santarém, both areas in the Brazilian Amazon at the state of Pará since 2005. She has sought to understand and describe families' sustainable livelihoods and strategies and their connection with Land Use and Cover Change from an interdisciplinary approach. Since 2014 her research has focused on how ethnic data is designed and collected in Latin America and how it is related to territorial struggles, food sovereignty and rights recognition in the region. She was the coordinator of the Population Space and Place Workgroup (GT PopEA) in the Brazilian Association for Population Studies (ABEP) for the 2021-2022 period and coordinator of the Food, Agriculture and Rural Studies Section (FARS) of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) for the 2021-2022 period. She joined CLOSER in 2015. Having a degree in Social Science, a master in Social Anthropology and a PhD in Demography all from Campinas University (UNICAMP), Thais was a visiting research student at LSE for the 2012-2013 period.

Video contributions


Angela Maria Feitosa Mendes is a socio-environmental activist, a technologist in environmental management and the current coordinator of the Chico Mendes Committee, which has been working for thirty-two years to keep her father's memory and legacy alive. She also coordinates the project “Young Protagonists” of the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve, and is one of the articulators of the new Aliança dos Povos da Floresta.

Clarissa Gandour

Clarissa Gandour serves as the Head of Policy Evaluation focusing on Conservation at the Climate Policy Initiative Brazil. Her work generates rigorous empirical evidence on the effectiveness and impact of key policies aimed at strengthening environmental protection and reducing forest degradation and deforestation. She has done extensive analysis evaluating the effectiveness of Amazon conservation policy efforts, and is currently assessing new challenges and opportunities for enhancing the protection of native vegetation throughout Brazil. Clarissa holds a Ph.D. in Economics from the Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio), with a focus on Development Economics and Applied Microeconomics.


Claudelice Santos is a human rights and environmental defender, founder of the Zé Claudio e Maria Institute, an organisation that, among other goals, engages national and international support networks to help people threatened for defending collective rights and forests. The organisation was named after Claudelice's brother and sister-in-law, who were murdered on May 24, 2011, for protecting the forest and human rights. 

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